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the international journal of computer

game research
volume 3, issue
may 2003
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Bo Kampmann Walther
is Associate Professor at
The Department of
Media Science,
University of Southern
Denmark. Together with
Carsten Jessen he
coordinates the Danish
game research network Recent
works include Laterna
Magica: P sporet af en
digital stetik, Odense
Playing and Gaming
Reflections and Classifications
by Bo Kampmann Walther
This article aims to clarify the distinctions between playing and gaming. Although
we often tend to regard them as similar types of leisure, there are, I will argue,
important ontological as well as epistemological differences. What is play? And
what is a game? These are ontological issues because they deal with structure
and formalisms. A brief definition: Play is an open-ended territory in which
make-believe and world-building are crucial factors. Games are confined areas
that challenge the interpretation and optimizing of rules and tactics - not to mention
time and space. Furthermore, there are questions that focus on the dynamics of
playing and gaming. These belong to an epistemological agenda. Following the
latter thread, I shall distinguish between "play-mode" and "game-mode." The trick
is to view gaming as something that takes place on a higher level, structurally as
well as temporally. When it comes to play, the installation of the form of the
play-world-non-play-world distinction must, performatively, feed back on itself
during play: continually rearticulating that formal distinction within the play-world,
so as to sustain the internal ordering of the play-world. However, in the
game-mode, this rearticulation is already presupposed as a temporal and spatial
incarceration that protects the rule-binding structure of a particular game from
running off target. In other words: games should not be play; but that does not
imply that they do not require play. This means, in effect, that in the play-mode the
deep fascination lies in the oscillation between play and non-play, whereas
game-mode presses forward one's tactical capabilities to sustain the balance
between a structured and an un-structured space. In play-mode one does not want
to fall back into reality (although there is always the risk of doing so). In
game-mode it is usually a matter of climbing upwards to the next level and not lose
sight of structure.
In the course of the article I shall address both of the above-mentioned modes,
and I will do so by "testing" play and games in the light of a systems theoretical
framework. The relevance of applying such a perhaps far from eloquent
vocabulary is the fact that both play and games cope with complexity, build
structural dynamics and deal with forms. Viewed this way, we can furthermore free
ourselves - and this is not meant negatively - from any ethnographic or
ethnomethodological evidence. This is neither to determine that all play is equal
whether it be that of a young child, a schoolchild, an online gamer or a
professional gamer. Nor is it to ignore the variations between so-called zero-sum
games in which all draws (in principle) are known to the players (or the computer)
and n-sum games in which moves and actions cannot (solely) be decided by the
rules. Rather, what is focused on here is the logico-formalistic configurations that
as such act as indispensable vehicles for play and game activities. These activities
can be regarded as differentiated subsystems each of which operates as
autopoietic (self-producing) systems with a code, a medium, elements and a
borderline (Luhmann 1990; Thyssen 2000). What is at stake here is a certain
capacity for structuring domains of meaning through the interconnection of
elements and through specific functional form-operations.
The article falls into two main parts. The first part extrapolates some of the
conceptual highlights of twentieth century play- and game research; the second,
and major, part establishes a theoretical toolbox for the classification of play and
games and offers a description of their organisation. This description again falls
into two parts. First, I illustrate the initial boundaries and constraints in play and
games, and second I deal with the way space and time is assembled and function
in them.
1. What's in a game?
Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) argues that it is nearly impracticable to describe play
and games in positive, non-paradoxical terms (see also Juul 2001). Instead, he
suggests distinct exemplifications based on rhetoric. If we ask this or that cultural
or social semantic question, we will almost certainly get this or that answer. We
cannot, so it seems, escape our paradigmatic horizon, since our observations are
entangled in our very understanding of what is observed. Sutton-Smith asserts
that we are so burdened by play in terms of action and epistemology that it
becomes a paradoxical task to overstep this framework and gaze upon play in a
neutral and ontological fashion. The "how" obstructs the "what".
In Homo Ludens (1938) Johan Huizinga touches to some extent upon the same
constructivist ideas as Sutton-Smith, although he is far more positivistic in his
explanation. Playing, he says, constitutes cultural forms and modalities of meaning
that facilitate the norms and codes of societal semiotics. Furthermore, he argues
that play is older than culture itself; that play is temporally and spatially confined,
which means that the player is committed to the rules that govern play behaviour;
and finally he emphasises that play sets the subject free to perform actions without
material consequences.
Man, Play, and Games (1958) by the French philosopher and social scientist
Roger Callois focuses on the typology of "jeux." Callois examines play primarily
through its socio-historical origins, and he combines these with the assortment of
game classes and the way they foster social dynamics. Play is something one
does; but it is also the name of a thing. There are, he says, "agon" games which
are based on competition or conflict, as in match- and racing games; "alea" games
that are nested in chance or luck (e.g. Wheel of Fortune); "mimicry," that has to do
with simulation and make-believe, for instance by assuming a role in children's
play; and "ilinx," which are games founded on dizziness, as in roller coasters.
Callois furthermore provides a theory of the structural complexity of games:
"paidea" are freely (i.e. less) organised games, whereas "ludus" means highly
organised games.
The categorical manoeuvres may not be that straightforward, though, because
they emerge differently depending upon ones point of observation. When playing
the Danish first-person-shooter Hitman: Codename 47 (2000), one may say,
following Callois, that we must first and foremost "get into character" by assuming
a precise role - that of a hitman - before we can begin the action within the game
itself. Clearly, at this stage, we are in the domain of make-believe and pretence. A
game thus requires a play-mood which is something different than the specific
game in question. Once we are "in" the game and committed to its rules, world
patterns and so on, Hitman obviously presents itself as an agon-based game that
challenges senso-motoric capabilities and swift user reactions. So, the "as if" is
readily forgotten, though still preconditioned, once we start to murder by numbers.
We should not fail to notice the temporal displacement here: There is mimicry, and
then there is agon. I am a character and I play by the rules.
Arriving at this dichotomy between what games require and what games contain,
one may take comfort in the theories of Mihayl Csikszentmihalyi (1990) and
Gregory Bateson (1972). Whereas the former uses the term "flow" to grasp the
sensation of oscillating between ecstasy (which actually means to lose oneself)
and goal-orientation in play and other more or less extreme socio-cultural
activities; the latter tells us the following important things: 1) Play is paradoxical
because it is both within and outside our "normal" social semantic space. 2) Play is
a meta-communication that refers exclusively to itself, and not to any external
source or receiver. The reason why play can still be culturally valuable is that it
attaches a certain function of meaning to itself. As such, play can be shared and
communicated with others by reference to a code. It is in the medium of play that
the participants mutually create a "difference that makes a difference." 3) Bateson
further states that playing is autopoietic (self-generating) and autotelic (self-
motivating), and finally he suggests that play is not the name of some empirical
behaviour, but rather the name of a certain framing of actions. One might
speculate further and propose that play installs a shared facility among agents
who enthusiastically acknowledge the inherent deviation of a play system. This
deviation implies that communication about play defines and is the result of the
difference of the other of play; but it also brings forth the unity that assembles the
province of play.
Let us sum up so far:
Play and games are anchored in spatial and temporal settings, though, as
we shall see, they do not operate on the same level of complexity.
Play and games are embedded within the realm of cultural dynamics, and
perhaps they are even older than culture itself.
Play and games rely on flow-forms that both balance and optimize
Play and games necessitate a certain mood, and hereby they seem to
insist on complementary modes of analysis. What is in a game, and how
do we get there?
Play and games are meta-communicative acts that frame patterns of
behaviour in time.
2. The form logic of play and games
Moving from playing to gaming is all about transgressing boundaries and
assuming demarcations. Whereas in playing one risks cessation through
estrangement from the "real" world that one has already differentiated from the
playing environment itself, gaming tends towards closure through a structural
internalisation that is already dependent on a double strategy of difference. It is a
double strategy because one has to establish the limits of playing space, but in
addition, one needs to restrict this territory with respect to rule-binding criteria for
adaptation and interaction. Adaptation means cognitively responding to and
learning from chunks of game material, and interaction refers to the strategies
employed by the gamer in order to combine and reflect upon game elements, thus
pushing certain competences forward while leaving others unchallenged.
Hence, in playing there is the inherent but fascinating danger of being "caught" in
reality. Nothing is more disturbing for play than the aggressive intermission of
reality which at all times jeopardizes play as play or simply threatens to terminate
the privileges of play. Then its back to normal life. Systems theory and above all
the theory of the German social scientist Niklas Luhmann alarms us that one
should not conceive of reality in a nave naturalistic sense. Rather, reality is the
horizon that is transgressed in order to play, and it therefore becomes "the other"
of play. However, importantly, this otherness also has to abide within play, as it is
the latter's indication of what separates it from non-play. Therefore, the other is
simultaneously, as difference, and viewed from the inside of play, the unity of play.
Both non-play and play are "realities," because they are products of a distinction, a
difference that makes a difference. Similarly, in gaming there is always the danger
of being "caught" in a level that obstructs further action. Games tend to irritate the
agent involved whenever he or she is imprisoned within a certain vicinity of the
game world.
Take a canonical adventure game like Riven (1997) as an example of this custody.
Above all, the game seems to dwell intensively on a story that is transparent with a
number of scenarios which again are open to incessant exploration. However,
what we look for when we play the game and presumably travel around a world
is far more an underlying structure of that world. In fact, Riven seems to be
obsessed with highly complex puzzle- and level design, and as a result the user
tries to follow the nodal transitions of this design in the attempt to locate the map
of the world within the world. At times, this is indeed annoying: serious gamers do
not want to spend time in vain looking for interesting places to explore. They
much rather want to understand the structure so as to move forward revealing new
game areas or climb upwards in the hierarchy of levels.
This is really a question of logic. If certain activities of differentiation, including play
and games, presuppose transgression for an internal unity to be constructed on
the basis of distinction, then they inevitably invite contingency and alienation.
Other choices could have been made, and structural frameworks always risk
exposing their built-in differences, in which case they alienate the established unity
from its precondition. Moving into the sphere of psychology, the sensation of
alienation and the fragility by which distinctions reveal contingency become even
more obvious. Children often mourn the loss of play-time. Suddenly they are
thrown out into the other of play. Afterwards, they carry this recollection of
transgression into the very confines of play. One is likely to be interrupted while
playing, so this manoeuvre of implying the negativity of the other into the
sameness of the system is simply an innate feature of play. The basic structure of
play lies in its ability to create contingent resorts based on distinctions which are
open to meaning. The basic structure of a game adopts this praxis of distinction,
but its central "law" is furthermore its unique ability to reduce the complexity of
play by way of a set of well-defined, non-negotiable rules. One discusses tactics in
chess, not rules.
2.1 Initial boundaries and constraints
According to the mathematician George Spencer-Brown and his Laws of Form
(1969), a universe comes into being when a space is separated, that is, when a
distinction is made (Spencer-Brown, 1969).
The space cloven by any distinction,
together with the entire content of the space, is called "the form of the distinction"
(Spencer-Brown, 1969). Thus, a form is the distinction including both its marked
and unmarked sides.
Spencer-Brown further states that a distinction is effectuated if and only if one
draws a line that includes disparate sides, so that one point on one side of the line
cannot be reached without crossing the border. Spencer-Brown refers to this as
the crossing operation. While something is inside, something else is outside. But
this "something" can only be accounted for or reflected upon in the very act of
observation, not while one is actually making (drawing) the distinction (Baecker,
1993). Therefore, there has to be a primordial action at stake, namely the
distinction between operation and observation. In the domain of play and games,
the importance lies in the possibility of asserting the difference between the fact
that there are play and games, and that one can observe that one is playing or
Let us look more closely at interdependent boundaries and constraints. We will
begin by examining the logico-formalistic matter of play.
In the beginning, one makes a distinction. This is done in order to play. The
ontological certainty of a common world (or subsystem) is supplemented by the
information attained by drawing a new distinction. Thus, a playing world is
established. Its basic characteristic is precisely that it is not the world itself - the
playground may have separate laws - and, at the same time, it inhabits this very
world (which it is not). Instead of talking about "worlds," and, hence, embarking
upon concepts of truth and semantics, it would be more correct and in line with
Spencer-Brown simply to announce that, something - i.e. the form of the distinction
between play and non-play - is indicated by separating it from something that it is
not. The traditional difference between whole and part is thereby replaced by the
distinction between system and environment, a distinction that can be repeated
endlessly by system differentiation, in which the whole system uses itself in
forming its own subsystems (Qvortrup, in press).
Figure 1
I will refer to this initial stroke of distinction as the first transgression of play. As
illustrated in the figure above, play involves a second-order complexity. Not only is
there a complexity of the object in question, but furthermore we must account for
the complexity that is inscribed in the very observation of play. A complex observer
observes the complexity of his observations. These observations produce, in turn,
new possibilities for inscribing the form of the distinction within the form itself.
Let us now move on to gaming. Here, the distinctions that guide the form of play
are not enough. In addition, one observes and responds to the very criteria of
a specific game. At least, one has to be aware of these criteria in order to advance
and, preferably, win the game. Thus, the organisation of gaming lies in a third
order complexity which, in logico-formalistic terms, can be explained as follows:
1) First, a fundamental distinction occurs. Either one is in or one is out. If one is
out, one is situated in the blind spot of play's enclosure. This would be the
"unmarked state" (Luhmann, 1995) of play. This state is necessary for the
preliminary transgression; since the unmarked is paradoxically marked by its
negativity in relation to the positively indicated (see also von Foerster 1993).
However, the state is also unintelligible when one moves into the region of play. If
one needed constantly to take into account the abandoned other of play (the
unmarked state), there would, in effect, be less and less energy left for the interior
of play. Note also that even non-players or non-play elements have to be
transformed into players or play elements in order to be fully operational. A tree is
not a tree; it is the point of reference to an adventurous area with monsters and
fairies - in the back garden. The dull teacher is not a teacher; he is the evil
lieutenant in a galactic army that hopes to destroy the player's imaginary
2) Next, a second transgression takes place (see again Figure 1). Not only does
one surmount the other of non-play in order to settle the space of play. One also
transcends the open territory so as to impose a rigid pattern of dynamics onto it.
The suppleness of play stems from the fact that it is open to the repetitive
fabrication of rules. The flexibility of games is precisely that they are autonomous
in respect to rules; instead, they are open for tactics. Rules are forms that direct a
certain irreversibility of structure: move left, instead of right, and you're dead!
Arrive at the tree five seconds late, and the monsters will take over power (and so
will the evil teacher)!
3) Finally, the movement towards rule is a result of a form within a form within a
form, i.e. a third-order complexity, a temporal displacement of two transcending
acts - that of constituting the contingent modality of play and that of fixating the
principles of a games structure. The tree in the back garden distinctively marks a
play-tree in opposition to an ordinary tree, and in the course of time one can
imagine the back garden being filled with a structure in which a tree might hold a
decisive connotation.
There is, then, a bond between the form logic and the temporal logic of play and
game. The form logic zeroes in on the operations that are required to obtain
complex systems on two levels which in turn constitute the transgressions that
separate play and games from each other. The temporal logic tells us that playing
precedes gaming. A play world becomes a gaming environment; an open-ended
resort turns into a curbed area.
2.2 Space-time Settings
We have seen how play and game result from distinctions and the building of form,
complexity and organization. Now, let us look more closely into the way that play
and games tackle space and time.
Play is centred in a discovery of open spaces that invite observation through the
duration of temporality. Gradually, one learns how to pilot inside play, and since the
completion of more and more successful tasks takes time, it corresponds to the
distinctive forms that keep differentiating the play system into finer grades of
subsystems. One inhabits spaces like these via certain as-if-structures, one
assumes a role and lives out characters whether in the form of other players or
agents that one can adapt as a player. The gamut of play equalises a
measurement of its geometry, and these lengths and widths become in turn the
source of gaming's internalisation of both geometrical space and discrete
progression (see Figure 2). Consequently, we are in the domain of temporal logics.
The success of transforming games (e.g. board games) into computer games
might stem from the fact that a digital computer is a discrete state machine. It thus
bears, in its very design, a strong resemblance to formalised game systems, most
notably rules for discrete sequential operations. In contrast, play seems to focus
on investigations of semantics, since the task is, not only to measure its space, but
furthermore to elaborate upon its modes of interpretation and means for
re-interpretation. Not only do we explore a world while playing. We are also driven
by its potential meaning and the stories we can invent in that respect. Play spaces
tend to expand, either in structural complexity or in physical extent. This expansion
is further reflected in the praxis of play, for instance when players argue over the
exact thresholds of a play domain. Again, this must be understood in a double
sense, meaning both the physical closure and the mental activities attached to it.
SPACE Geometrically based
Topologically based (discrete)
state sequences
Presence (prolonging of
Progression (tactics)
TIME Durability Transition
Search for semantics Search for structure
Figure 2. Space-time matrix
Why is this simultaneous division between and intermingling of play and games
important for the study of computer games? Because it touches upon the concept
of gameplay.
One can get immersed in the playing-mood that is needed to get into the game in
the first place (the first distinction that enables one to identify with a hitman), but
one can also be caught up in a certain area of the game where one begins to
question its criteria for structure (the second distinction that focuses on nodal
transitions). The plot is exactly to balance playing and gaming while gaming. One
must hold on to the initial distinction (otherwise one is swallowed by the other of
play), and one needs constantly to accept the organization, the rule pattern, of the
game. When one disregards this complementary balance a flow is interrupted.
A gameplay works precisely to assure this flow by serving as a potential matrix for
the temporal realisation of particular game sequences.
One such sequence may
lead one to wonder how one got into the game in the first place (then one
observes the first transgression, and one is in play-mode), or the actual sequence
might force one to reflect upon the criteria for the design of the space-time settings
(in which case one observes the second transgression, and one is in game-mode).
If a game breaks the illusion if it fails to indicate its unity through its difference
from its other and itself one is likely to be thrown back into play-mode. Consider,
for instance, the Danish adventure game Blackout (1997) in which the user takes
on the role of Gabriel who suffers from severe schizophrenia (he has no less than
four split personalities) and anamneses. The plot within the game is both
traditional, in that it carefully peals off layer after layer of hidden psychologies, and
allegorical: the fact that our alter ego (Gabriel) is a schizophrenic can be read as a
figural dissemination of what would be the starting point of most computer games:
I am and am not the character I am playing. In a similar fashion, Gabriel's
anamneses might be interpreted as a kind of meta-fiction that point towards a
common game feeling. One has to complete the game in order to "remember"
what happened. One must proceed to the end of the line to fully grasp the
offspring of the line.
All of this is good, and it surely puts the game on the high side of current industrial
tricks. But on one occasion, Blackout perhaps inadvertently cuts short the
imperative illusion. In a particular scene we are asked by an old fortune-teller to
"click" on a symbol on the screen. Abruptly, we are thrown back to square one,
unintentionally recollecting the initial hocus-pocus that we made a contract in
order to play, and that we adapted and interacted with the structural complexity in
order to game (in the active sense). Therefore, at this point there is a profound
focus on play-mode. We are to use Spencer-Browns expression forced into
making a crossing operation. The distinction is shattered, the unity is broken.
However, as it happens, rather than treating the represented game world as a
detached object within the play environment (i.e. a screen instead of a game
element), we can compete against the game. Blackout is organised as a complex
series of interchangeable choices and levels of proactive interactions. While we
think we are "reading" the machine (meaning its scripted actions), the machine is
also "reading" the composition of our choices. But once we get the sense of this
(to what extent do our interactions influence the path that the machine is directing
us into?), we are able to "foresee" this action pattern and thus play against the
machine as if we were given the chance to re-design the map underneath the
very landscape we interacted with. This is game-mode, then, and actually on a
higher level. We are not just completing the games mission; we are also
challenging the organisation that frames this mission.
In an article on the future of game design, Deus Ex project director Harvey Smith
labours on the possibilities of props and gadgets filling up a game world (Smith,
2001). Such objects - say, phones in an office space - possess limited functionality.
Still, they make the fake space look "real." Or do they? Since artificial telephones
do not include the powerful randomness of phones in the real world, the illusion of
reality immediately reminds the player that the office space was a fake. It was
even so, of course, in the first place. If not, it would not have been constructible.
More so, if phones in adventurous games really were to behave like everyday
phones, this would indeed conclude the quest for truly emergent games. Then
we would boast games that acted just as unpredictably as real-life objects, but this
would at the same time imply that we were banned from any tactical activity since
there would be no structure left to found our tactics on. In my terms, the success of
actually transforming game phones into real phones would result in a kind of
rearward transgression: moving from game-mode to play-mode; falling from
identification with a structure to wondering about of what it means to play at all.
Another feature that distinguishes playing from gaming is the notion of presence.
Play commands presence. We have to be there - not only be there, but also be
there. A games success is intimately tied to the organisation of space and time.
Gamers need to trust this organisation. Since a game hinges on a certain finite
structure in order to promote infinite realisations of it the correlation of rules and
tactics the very articulating of presence so important for play must already be
presupposed in a game. One already knows in a game that the mission is to keep
on gaming, which really means, in my vocabulary, to keep on playing, that is, to
prolong the sensation of presence. The energy can then instead be directed
towards elucidation of the game's structure. "How do I get to the next level?", and
not "why do I play?" This was exactly what happened in Blackout. A lesson to be
taught is furthermore that there is a weighty discrepancy between a premeditated
contingency (Could I have done otherwise?) and a contingency based on the
insecurity of the presence-absence dichotomy (Should I stop playing?).
3. Conclusion
Play and games are different. However, they are also connected through a mutual
dynamic of form operations which means that play is based on a first-order
transgression and abides in a second-order complexity, whereas games are based
on a second-order transgression and reside in a third-order complexity (see Figure
1). The logico-formalistic method used in this article needs not only to be
sharpened by further analyses of computer games in order to contribute to a
welcome development of theory; it also touches upon the concept of gameplay.
Since the desire often experienced in gaming is not to lose track of playing (and
presence), gameplays that fail to shelter the inside of a game from the outside
of play may simply alienate the user. I do not want to click on a screen in Blackout;
instead I want to communicate with the game in the game. Similarly, I do not want
any phone to be ringing randomly in Deus Ex in spite of the realistic effect it
would bring to mind but I want that phone with that message on it to do the trick
for me. In that respect, gameplay should work to assure the circularity of different
orders of complexity without doubting its own make-believe. Gaming should not be
troubled by playing. Rather, we should be concerned about finding the most
sufficient and entertaining way to proceed appropriately. In conclusion, to
paraphrase EA Sports: If its in the game, its in the game.
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[1] I am grateful to Jason Rutter, Graeme Kirkpatrick and Lars Qvortrup for
generous comments on a previous draft of this article.
[2] See also Michel Foucault: "Of Other Spaces," in Diacritics, no 16, spring 1986.
Here, Foucault proclaims that our present age is obsessed with space, and that
the modern uneasiness stems from a space that is readily accessible and in which
time is nothing more than the organisation of spatial elements in grids, branches
and topological relations.
[3] Spencer-Brown calls this potentially infinite differentiation process "re-entry":
forms that keep doubling back upon themselves.
[4] Note that "gameplay" is understood here as an abstract term for the setting of
user-constraints and -possibilities. Other definitions of gameplay focus on
"interesting choices" (Sid Meier), the effect of correlating input and output through
choices and internal game responses (Richard Rouse III) or the emergence of
informal experiences via formal rules (Jesper Juul). Interesting combinations of
state rules and strategies in games can be found in John H. Holland's Emergence:
From Chaos to Order. Here, Holland distinguishes between 1) the state of the
game, i.e. the arrangement of pieces on the board at any point in the play. 2) The
state space of a game, meaning a collection of all arrangements of the pieces on
the board that are allowed under the rules of the game. 3) The root of the tree of
moves, which is the game's initial state. 4) The leaves of the tree of moves, which
are the ending states. 5) A game strategy that serves as a prescription of right
decisions as the game unfolds (Holland, 1998).
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2001 - 2004 Game Studies
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